Category Archives: Mediation

Inserting oneself into others’ conflicts.

Aikido and Conflict Resolution

At a conference on Collaborative Law last week, I had the pleasure of attending a session on Aikido and Conflict Resolution by Judy Ringer, a consultant and practitioner from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (www.judyringer.com). It was great to see someone else picking up on some of the same connections I’ve been writing about here. Even though her approach was different than mine, some of her core lessons, like centering and redirection, were the same. Keep up the good work, Judy!

water drop

I knew one or two of the other participants who had studied martial arts. Most had not, so it was interesting to see what appealed to them:

  • First was the “secret ninja” aspect. People thought it was cool to be learning anything about martial arts. Truth be told, most of us had that before we started training! I hope it whet some people’s appetites. A couple of people said to me afterwards that they had always wanted to learn an Asian fighting system.
  • Redirection is the essence of Aikido and plays a large role in many of the Chinese internal martial arts.  It is a hard skill to learn in pure martial arts training and it is really hard to teach in an hour to people with no background. Talking to other participants afterwards, some felt enough of an internal connection to start to relate it to dispute resolution techniques. Others not so much, although all were impressed with the Aikido demonstration and philosophy.
  • Being centered seemed lost on many. I think they were confusing the concept of physical centering with its new-agey equivalent. The reality, as all martial artists know, is that physical centering (perfect physical alignment) can lead to psychological centering. See my posts on Listening and Standing, Part 1 and Part 2.
  • Being rooted was something people grasped immediately. Can I push you over or not? This crowd, experienced in conflict resolution, felt in their bodies what it meant to be rooted. I may add that to my repertoire when it comes to my own conflict resolution practice. Is there an ethical way to have people in conflict do something like Tai Ji push hands? What if they already have a relationship that might provide some built-in limits?
  • People didn’t want to just have the experience. They needed to talk about it. One of the other participants, Prof. Robert Kubacki, who co-chairs the Civil Committee of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council with me (www.massclc.org/civilcollaborative), thought it might have to do with the distribution of Meyers-Briggs “S” and “N” types in the room. This crowd was over-weighted in the “ST” department, which suggests that a mix of concepts and hands-on experience was the best way to teach them.

I’m thinking about following in Judy’s footsteps and offering presentations on Kung Fu Mediation – making sure to allow time for a facilitated discussion about it afterwards! Please back-channel me if you have any thoughts on the topic.

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Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Using Soft Techniques

water drop

We Americans are raised in a culture that values directness and aggression.  As a result, most of us have a hard time grasping one of the great negotiating skills:  softness and strategic yielding.  While it may be difficult to master, it can be disarming and effective.

In his forward to Yang Chengfu’s The Essence and Application of Taijiquan, Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing) writes, “The way that softness subdues hardness is gradual, while the way hardness subdues softness is abrupt.  Abrubtness is easy to detect, so is easily defeated.  It is more difficult to sense gradualness, so it often prevails.”  People often think of “soft” as meaning “weak” and “hard” as being powerful, especially when it comes to physical fights.  Yet anyone who has ever seen a taiji (tai chi) fighter  knows that yielding and neutralizing can be incredibly powerful techniques (check out some of the endless online video clips).  If you are not there when your opponent strikes, he may be thrown off balance, leaving an opening for your counterattack.  That is especially true if his punch is hard and abrupt, leaving him no way to respond to you other than to hope he can pull back and reload.  The art comes in making him think you are there, right up until the last instant – a technique from internal martial arts like taiji “push hands.”  A variation from the external martial arts is known as a “yin” block, or disappearing from the place your opponent is trying to contact, as opposed to a “yang” block like knocking a punch out of the way.  Some of the Crane techniques are great examples.

How do “soft” and “hard” work in negotiations?  The key to “hard” is full frontal strength, over-muscling your counterpart.  That works if you are big enough, but try negotiating the boilerplate in your car lease and see how far you get.

There are two keys to “soft.”  Knowing how to yield may mean picking your battles and not making every point a bone of contention, like you have to do when dealing with a difficult two year old.  It may mean seeming to acquiesce, in whole or in part.  It may even mean asking for more and more explanations, or spending time on ancillary issues.  These are all techniques you can use for other reasons in any conversation, but they are also techniques for yielding and neutralizing.

The other key is timing.  Sometimes when you ask people to explain themselves over and over again because you just do not get what they are saying, they wear themselves out.  You can feel them starting to hear their own logical gaps, and then you come in with a counter to move them off their position.  When you have circled around an issue for long enough, your counterpart may grow impatient and feel the need to jump into the more difficult issue in an awkward way that sets you up in a better position.

The essence is to pay attention to the gaps.  It is traditionally referred to as the old strength being exhausted:  your time to strike is the moment between your counterpart’s extension of the old punch and its retraction in preparation for the new.  Consider that in the ebb and flow of the conversation.

Shamanism, Martial Arts And Negotiation?

Sorry, this is a strange post, even for an offbeat blog like this one!

I’ve recently come across a couple of articles suggesting that the origin of martial arts lies in ancient shamanistic practices rather than the practical need for self-defense. For instance, there’s this article on “Shamanism and the Origins of Martial Arts,” and this article on “The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi.” The latter article begins by describing how much a “spirit dance” by a shaman of the Ka-ren tribe in Thailand reminded the author of tai chi.

Figurine of unknown origin doing exercise similar to Chi Gong

These ideas are interesting, particularly since the shamanic roots of Daoism are well-accepted in academic literature. As all you kung fu masters and other readers know, Daoism has played a key role in the development of tai chi and other martial arts. The way most of us practice, though, the ideas are a bit of a stretch – but if you feel like you are channeling a noncorporeal snake during training, who am I to argue? Teachers have been telling me for years to figure out how to BE a leopard, so I hope somebody gets it even if it eludes me! The fact that this is an often-used teaching method suggests that there is something to it, even if you are not a member of an animist tribe.

As an armchair anthropologist (who actually spent some time among the Ka-ren, a long time ago), I wonder how this carries over to daily life. If a modern person negotiates with the intense, quiet focus of a snake, is he engaging in the contemporary equivalent of a shamanistic spirit dance? Does the answer vary culturally, depending on whether that person is a woman in Boston or a man in the Philippines? It would make a nice research paper for someone.

With some mediators I know, the answer is clearly closer to yes! The Wikipedia definition of shamanism states, “Shamans act as mediators in their culture” (mediating between the living and the spiritual world). The Association for Conflict Resolution has a Spirituality section. Many mediators are explicitly motivated by religious ideas – I can name half a dozen people who have expressed this to me in terms their own backgrounds, as pastoral obligation, doing God’s will on earth, healing the world, etc. Some of these people are incredibly effective.

If this sense is a motivation for your work as an advocate, negotiator, mediator or even arbitrator – whether you want to BE the tiger or BE the balancing point – you can take it to the next level. Try adding in some physical elements, like those the shamans use.  Kung fu training may give you an archetypal boost.

Kung Fu Negotiation: Staying Centered With the Art of Ba Gua Chang

Translated literally as “Eight Trigrams Palm,” the martial art of Ba Gua Chang is traditionally only taught to students who have first achieved a black belt in another discipline.  It is said that anyone can learn the art of Taiji; one in 50 can learn the art of Xing Yi, another internal style; and only one in 100 can learn Ba Gua. It can be that complicated.

Ba Gua or Eight Trigrams Symbol

Ba Gua is a mashup of Zen circle walking, aspects of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and many different internal and external martial arts forms. People in China even attribute semi-magical qualities to it, like rebuilding qi to recapture youth.  Some say that Ba Gua is one of the root practices of aikido, and the expert practitioner indeed moves like the aikido master, smoothly and effortlessly floating from one movement to the next. If you want to learn more about Ba Gua, check out masters Bruce Frantzis at http://www.energyarts.com and Jerry Cook at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0na1tpjkh1Y.

What does it have to do with negotiation, mediation or arbitration? If we look to the foundational exercise of this system, it becomes clearer.  The root of Ba Gua is walking in a circle like the Zen masters. Pick a clear area 3-5 feet across. Raise your arms up into a guard position, with your right hand at shoulder level, slightly higher and further extended than the left. Start walking in a circle toward your right (clockwise), always keeping your shoulder and hand pointed toward the center of the circle. Step with your feet flat. Keep going.  After a couple of times around, switch to your left hand, left shoulder, left direction.  Do it again, then switch back. If you want to take it to the next level, always keep your eyes on the tip of your finger as the blade of your hand faces the center. Start circle walking just a few minutes at a time before you build up to more.

The key word here is “center.” You are circling the center, which when you get to applications will enable you to circle around the person attacking you. You are moving around the circle, which will enable you to move smoothly into some nasty joint locks and throws. Your focus is always on the center, not directly forward or on yourself, so you are always able to be flexible with your tactics.

Likewise, in a negotiation, your eyes need to be on the center: the reason you are in the negotiation. If your eyes are directly forward, you may get locked into a path without realizing why, or maybe even confuse that path with your real goals. If your eyes are on yourself, you may be too protective, and in your concern about being hit you will lose sight of your goals. If your strategies do not revolve around your real goals, you may be too easily deflected.

In a mediation, be prepared to circle behind the other party or even the mediator. You can do that if your attention stays on your goals, and if you are prepared to be flexible in the way you reach those goals. During this type of intensive negotiation, the circumstances are constantly shifting, and you need to be able to adapt.

In an arbitration, keep your focus on the center, the core of your argument. Try to move smoothly from one presentation of evidence to another, creating as even a flow as possible with no breaks in the argument.  Take charge of the room like the Ba Gua master who looks like he is doing a solo ballroom dance even though each of his small movements can be devastating.

Ba Gua is designed so that one can fight eight people at once!  It has major application in multiparty negotiations, settlement discussions or arbitration.  When there are so many agendas on the table and so much complexity of competing demands, personalities and information flow, it is easy to be distracted and overwhelmed. Keep your focus on the center so you are prepared to ward off or attack each one of the other participants.  The number of possible responses multiplies like the number eight in Ba Gua applications, Daoist thought or Chinese superstition, but unless you keep that focus you will get lost in the detail and have no power behind your implementation.

If there is one thing to remember about Ba Gua, it is this: if you focus on your goal despite chaos and try not to get locked in to a particular solution, you will be ready for whatever conflict your situation throws at you. It is another way of looking at interest-based negotiation.

Listening and Standing, Part 2

Standing stones on Orkney Island

Active listening can be difficult for four main reasons. One is force of habit. Many people follow the same pattern in every interaction. It varies culturally, but one common pattern for negotiators in the US is to start nice, go through the list of issues, get testy, withdraw and sulk, come back reluctantly, then reach agreement. People are so stuck in their pattern there is no room to listen. Another is distraction from our own internal chatter and moment to moment physical discomforts – the psychologists use the term “internal distractors.” The third is difficulty in connecting with others, which is sometimes a skill that has not been learned and sometimes, as with people on the autistic spectrum, a biological difficulty.  The fourth is learning to listen without judging. Most people can learn to do better.

For many people, learning to quiet and bypass internal distractors is a very powerful tool. Any form of meditation will help with the sound of our own voices in our heads, which then helps with listening. Accepting one’s own physical discomfort in the process also helps with the judging bit. That represents at least two of the four roadblocks to listening.

There is also a very easy qigong exercise to start building your potential. It is called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. For the first position, take your shoes off and stand up. Keep your arms out from your body slightly. Feel a weight pulling at your tailbone, and lightness in the crown of your head like a balloon is pulling it upward. Breathe naturally with your diaphragm, so that you can feel your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Now just stand there. Feel the alignment of your body and any other internal sensations that come to you. Start with a minute or two at a time. Work your way up. When you get to five minutes you will start to see results. 20 minutes is a good goal, since we naturally seem to move in 20-minute cycles of concentration. This position is called Wu Ji, a term from Daoist theology referring to the formless void before creation from which the world ultimately flows – kind of like the “darkness on the face of the waters” from the book of Genesis. While one can get mystical about this exercise, it is immensely practical, both in terms of health benefits (balance, strength, alignment, reducing tension, even some minimal cardio) and increasing the ability to listen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it even increases the amount of qi available to you. For those readers looking for kung fu tactics, standing practice is the fundamental exercise for developing internal strength in taiji and certain other internal martial arts. All the fancy hand-waving in the world does no good without the strength to back it up.

There are many further levels of zhan zhuang, but this one is a good start. Give it a try. Whether your goal is to be a better martial artist, mediator, arbitrator or negotiator, listening is a critical skill, and if you can get physical benefits out of the learning process, so much the better.

Listening and Standing, Part 1

Ear, listening

In the first few hours of basic mediation training, beginning students are exposed to a concept called “active listening.” It involves really listening, letting people know that you are hearing them without judging. Since one of the drivers of conflict can be people’s sense that they are not being heard, addressing that need is a fundamental element of conflict resolution.

Therapists are good at it. Many lawyers have trouble, since they are more used to talking than listening. While some people do have an innate talent for listening well, most people can learn how to listen better with practice.

Active listening dovetails very nicely with a set of skills from taiji (or t’ai chi, depending on how the word is Romanized). As you learn this complicated style, you also learn to listen to your own body to get the subtle internal movements right. Eventually, you learn to correct many of your own errors, because if you keep certain principles in mind mistakes simply feel wrong. Then, when you begin the two-person exercise called Push Hands, you learn to listen with your body to the other person’s movements. One of the Chinese words for listening is tingdong, literally meaning “to hear and to understand.” It does not come naturally, any more than active listening does to the new mediator, but one of the great health benefits of taiji is that it automatically carries over to other activities. After enough practice, you can even feel if you are breathing and walking wrong.

In a non-physical conflict, you can also learn to listen at a level beyond your ears. Normally, both the signal and the reception may be at an unconscious level. However, if you learn to listen to your own sensations that might otherwise be intellectualized or sensed as a random flux of hormones, if you learn to filter out internal noise, you might be able to pick up on others’ agitation and behavior patterns. Surprisingly, you might even be able to tell when people respond to signals you are telegraphing.

Next post, I’ll tell you how to use a qigong exercise to jump start your active listening.

A Needle Wrapped In Cotton: The Tai Chi Negotiator

I love tai chi (taiji). Learning the full Yang style form takes about a year. If one rushes through, it is easy to get confused.

Once you learn the form, it is easy to get lost in the moving meditation of the movements. There are layers upon layers of complexity, so you can sink without limit into the detail. Some people have said that tai chi takes more than one lifetime to learn. There are even hidden codes in the movements that bring the form to life in strange and unexpected ways. Some things are not for the Internet, though!

Cotton buds

In application – for tai chi, the great ultimate, is a martial art – the goal of the Yang style is to be “a needle wrapped in cotton.” The motion is soft and flowing, yielding gently like a ball of cotton, but with cold, hard steel on the inside. The practitioner yields to a push or a punch, making the pusher or puncher feel like he is moving against air, then suddenly turns the force around into a shock that knocks the other party off his feet. It is hard to learn to yield. Even though I’ve been at it for years, I still need a decade or two more practice before I really get it.

If you work at it enough, you can bring this same skill set to negotiation, even though our instinct is aggression. Seem to yield, then push back just at the right time. Redirect the complaints and at the last second turn them around. Embrace the ebb and flow of the conversation. Walk softly with your strength and have the confidence not to have to wave it around. This can be devastatingly effective, regardless of the approach your counterparty is taking. The tai chi negotiator seems to exert less effort, but still often gets her way.

Even if you are in a more formal dispute resolution setting, like an arbitration or litigation, you can still be a needle wrapped in cotton. The litigator who goes full bore in every contact with the judge may have a different reception than his calm opponent who strikes carefully at the important points and does not feel the need to respond to every minor argument. The party in mediation seems to go with the flow, which somehow brings everyone to his point of view. The tai chi arbitrator effortlessly redirects his opponent’s charges and therefore has much less flack to wade through in order to get to his point. He also, seemingly without effort, spends less time filtering the emotional content of the presentation as his opponent. It makes him more credible.

I’ll be writing much more about tai chi, ba gua and other “internal” practices. In the meantime, remember: don’t engage when you don’t have to. Redirect the attack.

Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Attack From the Side

Years ago, I found myself negotiating a minor piece of a very large transaction between two phone companies. I had represented one of the phone companies before, in the role of a kind but gentle 800 pound gorilla. Negotiation with the other phone company revealed what it was like for two gorillas to interact. Reasonable requests were met with a rather rude, “No. What’s your next point?” It was only when I countered with a perplexed, “Gee, that’s not very constructive,” followed by an awkward silence, that my counterpart felt socially forced to start giving explanations. Once he felt he had to move from staking out a position to stating his interests, we were able to make progress.

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In his book The Art Of Shaolin Kung Fu, Wong Kiew Kit lists a number of strategies and tactics. One of them is, “If an opponent is strong, enter from the side; if he or she is weak, enter from the front.” If you find yourself in a physical contest with someone much larger than you, it is difficult to meet him head-on. Instead, duck and weave to the side and go for the ribs, the side of the head or even the back. The flipside is that if you are much larger than your opponent, you should beware his sideswipes if you barrel over him.

If you’re sitting across the table from someone, similar rules apply. Someone with a wad of cash to spend, like a lead investor or a bank with an unalterable loan agreement, can take the role of the 1,000 pound gorilla. She doesn’t have to be rude about it, but can say, “I’m sorry. This is the way we do things. There is no flexibility on that.”

If you are met with the big gorilla response, what do you do? Unless you have the power and desire to threaten to walk away from the table, and unless your counterpart really cares if you walk away, you can’t attack head on and throw down the gauntlet. That would be entering from the front, as if your opponent were weak. The only thing you can do is enter from the side, like my conversation with the phone company lawyer: a shove from the side, then stepping back as he fell into his imbalance. Depending on the situation, you can focus your counterpart’s attention elsewhere to draw out an explanation eliciting his real interest, in which case you can then try to seek a constructive compromise. You can put a pin in the difficult topic and move off to something related, then circle back. Then again, if the point is ancillary you can accept it and move on to the next one. The latter course would be sidestepping your counterpart’s implicit threat to walk away unless he gets his way.

In sum, if you are the big gorilla, there may be important points you just do not need to negotiate. If your position is not so strong, consider an indirect approach to get what you really want. As a mediator, help one or both of the parties redirect their conflict. In an ideal world, each will feel he has encountered a strong opponent, attacked from the side, and won.